In 1159, during an attempted coup, one of the court’s ladies in waiting disguises herself as the lord’s wife, and a loyal samurai conveys her from the city. This diversion allows the royal family to escape. After the coup fails, the samurai asks his lord to let him marry the woman as his reward. The lord grants the request and then discovers she is already married to one of the ruling family’s lieges. The samurai clings to his desire, importuning her to leave her husband, then challenging the husband to release her. Although the husband stays calm and she stays faithful, the samurai remains intemperate and stubborn, with tragic consequences. This film held my interest but I found the plot predictable and the acting exaggerated (Moritoh looks more ridiculous than frightening). According to Sharp, “Kinugasa himself was fully aware of his picture’s dramatic weaknesses, and blamed intervention from his producer, an under-developed script, and a rushed working schedule due to a release date fixed in advance”.
In a time when movies are becoming more and more alike, Gate of Hell provides an intelligent way-out to imagination and, at the same time, to more complex and unorthodox endings. The classical Romantic triangle links to a Greek-like tragedy (it’s loosely based on The Rape of Lucrece), where the main characters suffer the circumstances of carnal passion triggered by a vulgar political event. Contrary to a confrontation to be solved within the male stamina, Kinugasa’s subtle tactful touches the theme of guilt and punishment embroidered in a suspenseful plot that reminds us of Dostoiewski’s tragic hero. Such ideals are no longer frequently or fully embraced these days. Look at how we glorify criminals in shows like The Sopranos and Thief. I also liked how the plot falls together: Kesa’s readiness to sacrifice herself at the outset of the story made her self-immolation at the end of the film ring true.
This movie totally held my attention, and delivered everything I could have wanted, but not in the way that I expected. Wow! Easy to see why this movie won an Oscar for best foreign film and is Criterion’s latest Japanese film to be released on blu-ray. It is beauty, pure beauty. Such a change from nowadays ridiculous re-writings like some coming blockbusters. Naturally, this being a Stoicism tragedy: The husband discovers belatedly his wife really loves/loved him, the samurai discovers too late that been faithful comes with a price etc etc…
I will only comment on the plot to point out that you should pay attention to the role of the husband, it is often overlooked. He alone embodies the spirit of a samurai. She cannot tell him of her plans, but she knows that his life will be saved. Kyo Machiko, as Kesa, has expressions that are full of unspoken emotion. She quietly arranges to exchange beds with her husband and take his place. And she calmly lays down her life for her husband; Morito steals into the house and slashes her with a sword, thinking that she is her husband and that Kesa will at last belong to him. He is horrified when he finds out what has actually happened — he has murdered his beloved. If it seems strange to Americans, bear in mind it was made in 1953, and unlike almost all of Akira Kurosawa’s films was made with Japanese sensibilities in mind, not American. Lady Watanabe’s sacrifice is noble but does her husband no honor, the Lord toys with Moritoh and Lady Kesa a bit too much for his amusement, and Moritoh realizes too late that he is of course simply a fool. Do see this film it you have a chance.